Ok, today raised the bar for how much it is possible to stuff into one day's schedule. We began our day in Elizabethton at Sycamore Shoals Historic State Park, the centerpiece of which is an authentic reproduction of a frontier fortification of the Revolutionary War era. The local pioneer settlers built the fort to protect themselves from the hostile Cherokee Indians who were allied with the British. At the time, the area was still part of North Carolina. The local militia, in addition to defending against the Cherokee threat, participated in several battles of the southern campaign of the war. They were known as the Overmountain Men because they came from the wild western frontier, “over the mountains” from the 13 colonies. They were best known for their involvement in the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. In that battle, the Patriots surprised the Torys encamped atop the mountain and in a fierce one hour battle, eliminated their fighting capability and made a definitive statement in their resolve to win at all costs. The battle was a turning point in the American Revolution and paved the way for the British surrender at Yorktown.
We were privileged today to be greeted by a couple of dozen authentic Revolutionary War period re-enactors, or living history interpreters as they are more formally called. Present were men interpreting long hunters, frontier craftsmen, milita men and even several women were present interpreting the roles of frontier women. Most impressive was the six member Watauga Valley Fife and Drums Corps, complete with a leader, a bass drummer, a snare drummer and three fife players. A fife is a type of high-pitched wooden flute that found its way to the American colonies via the British army and was adopted by the settlers for use in their local militias. In battle and troop camp life, the fife and drum corps played a critical role in communications. In the camp, the corps' songs told the troops when to wake up, when to go to bed, when to march, etc. In battle, the corps' role was even more critical as lives depended on them. The high pitch of the fifes and the the booming of the drums could be heard even through canon and musket fire in the heat of battle. The corps' songs would tell the troops when to advance, when to retreat and which direction to move. So critical was the corp's role in battle that the American forces' fife and drum corps actually wore redcoats so that the British would not fire at them.
The Watauga Corps was founded by John Large about eight years ago and they find themselves in demand throughout the region to perform at various events – ranging from Daughters of the American Revolution ceremonies to major re-enactments like the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. John had the dream of forming the Corps since a long-ago high school field trip where he saw the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drums Corps, which has existed since 1960. It was formed in the spirit of the original fife and drum corps founded at the time of the revolution. Today, they are the official escort to the President at state ceremonies.
Later, it was a pleasure meeting Earl Slagle and his wife Linda and their children Sarah and Jacob. They interpret an 18th century frontier family. Earl's roots go deep in the region. He traced them as far as the early 1800's. He believes he is playing a very important role in educating visitors to the park, especially children. I agree with him completely and I greatly appreciate what Earl and his family do with their free time. Until you spend some quality time with a living history interpreter, you can't appreciate how much they take pride in the accuracy of their portrayal and the depth of their knowledge about the daily life of that time period. Their enthusiasm for their historical subject easily transfers to kids.
Most historic state and national park have living history programs during the summer. My family and I have attended several such programs over the years and my kids really love them. For kids especially, when history comes alive, when it is tangible, when you can see it, even smell it, it definitely resonates with them a lot more than the way reading-based history is traditionally taught in schools. Here is a list of living history programs throughout the US. Next time you visit a state or national park, definitely set aside some quality time to take part in whatever living history program is offered. It's a great, free educational and entertaining resource that everyone should take advantage of.
Next up, we drove a short distance down the road to the charming downtown Elizabethon where we met up with Sheriff Chris Mathes and his All-Star Jailbird Band. With the historic covered bridge over the Doe River as a backdrop, Sheriff Chris and the band entertained us with rendition of two classic tunes that I would characterize as gospel-based bluegrass in style. I loved the music.
Right near the bridge is the recently re-built Doe River Weir Dam. It incorporates the latest design features to minimize negative environmental impacts. Features such as vortex weirs and fish ladder enhance fish habitat and improve water quality.
Later on, we met up with some local volunteers to participate in a cleanup along the beautiful Watuaga River. As fly fisherman cast their lines just a few feet from us, we patrolled the shore picking up debris washed up during high water periods. It is bad enough to see our roadways trashed – it is truly tragic to see our waterways treated this way, especially one so beautiful as this. Tires are a common site in Tennessee's waterways and today was no exception. Ron Harrington is a local volunteer with the Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited and he has done an exemplary job over the years leading efforts to keep this and other waterways in the region clean.
We ended our day with our second helping of old time music on the tour – but this time in the East Tennessee Mountain Style. Fittingly, our concert venue was the front porch of an historic 1908 farm house tucked away in a small “holler” on Roan Mountain State Park. It is called the Miller Homestead and its a beautiful, quiet spot to have an afternoon picnic.
Earlier in the tour, in Rutherford in West Tennessee, we listened to the Front Porch pickers do one of the very same songs we would hear today. It's incredible how different both renditions of Cindy were. Within one state, there can be such a huge different in interpretation of the same “old time” music style. This time, the performers were T.V. Barnett and his Roan Mountain Moonshiners. The instruments were different. Gone were the harmonicas and guitars and in were the washtub string bass and the banjo. The namesake of the band, T.V., could have come from Central Casting. A true native of these parts and quite the fiddle player, he could easily have had an alternate career in Hollywood westerns. His peculiar style of playing the violin involves holding it low on his lap. I'm told that is not uncommon in these parts, but definitely the first time I've seen that. Along with his hat, his fiddle playing style is all part of his act, and it works.
After the performance, T.V. entertained us with stories about growing up in the area, running a still at one time and even being fed by the family that lived in the Miller homestead as a boy. Fellow band member Rhody Jane Meadows explained how hard they have worked to keep this style of music alive in the face of ever-evolving musical styles. I love the music and really appreciate their efforts. There' something special about hearing music from the East Tennessee hills being played the same way it was played 100 years ago.
As the sun was setting and our day finally coming to an end, we settled into our campsite at Roan Mountain State Park. As much as I love all the state parks in Tennessee, this has to be on my short list of favorites. What a gorgeous spot tucked away in a little valley with a creek just a few steps from our campsites. The creek was irresistible for the girls who couldn't wait to break out their Barbie dolls and camping accessories. Fitting the occasion, they found a Barbie raft and launched her on an impromptu Class V whitewater rafting adventure.